Confessions of a Closet Gamer

Game reviews and anything else about gaming.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Star Wars Galaxies

Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games have been around for about a decade now since the Internet started becoming more pervasive. I never really got it. I guess it was because most of the MMO games out there were based on fantasy/D&D genres which I really never could immerse myself into. The other thing was that the only people I knew who played MMO games were really (and I mean REALLY) into the game they were playing and I did not identify with them either.

About 3 years ago, Star Wars Galaxies appeared. I looked into it, but it seemed overly complex and complicated to get into and looked to be half chore and half entertainment. The reviews didn’t help either. That was too bad, because I love the whole Star Wars universe and environment and it is a genre I can definitely get into.

A few months ago I read that Sony Online Entertainment (the company that runs SWG) revamped the game to make it more accessible. They even had a 10 day free trial to try out the game before they asked for any money. I happily downloaded the trial, installed it and was about to play when I made a big mistake – I read the reviews of the new revamp.

Here’s what I learned from the reviews:

  1. SOE destroyed the game.

  2. It was bad before, but it is worse now.

  3. It is an insult to all things Star Wars.

  4. LucasArts should pull the license from SOE and start over.

  5. It’s too geared to new players.

I shelved the game and never tried it.

About a month ago, looking for a new challenge, I started up the trial. I wanted to see just how bad it was. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the trial. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much, I signed up for a month. I’m still enjoying it.

(Here’s where people will probably disagree with me)

I see this game as an extension of the wildly popular Knights of the Old Republic games. It is an open ended universe where you decide what you want to do and how you want to do it. There are nine different professions to choose from and each interacts with the universe in different ways. There are combat characters who gain experience via battle and non-combat characters who gain experience though building, selling trading, crafting or entertaining.

It’s set in the time period just after the first Star Wars movie (or episode IV) so there are plenty of Imperials and Rebels running around. You can choose to be one of these factions if you want, or you can stay freelance.

This is something I never expected from an MMO – I’m having fun.

If you are into the whole Star Wars universe and like RPG type games, I would recommend downloading the trial and giving the game a try.

Which just leaves me with one question – why do I like the game where the reviews are so, so, negative? It took me a while but I think I have some answers:

  1. Some of the most negative comments are coming from veteran players who immersed themselves in the original incarnation of the game. When it was revamped, a lot of things change and we all know many people who don’t like change. Instead of seeing it as a new playing environment with new challenges, they completely lost the point. Games should appeal to both the new and the veteran player. You can’t just keep making a game better for the veterans without appealing to new players as well.

  2. There are those who hold the original trilogy of movies sacred and nothing can top them. Nothing compares to the feeling they had as a 12 year old watching Star Wars the first time on the big screen. They are the people who felt they had to trash the changes made to the original movies in the 90s. And the second trilogy (episodes I, II, and III) were so inferior to the first. These people will never be pleased because nothing will match the awe and wonder the original movies inspired in a 12 year old in the late 1970s.

Forget trying to compare things that are not comparable. For me games are not about the authenticity, the adherence to the genre/universe/story, or how many widgets it takes to make a doodad. I measure games by how much entertainment and enjoyment I get out of them.

Based on that criteria, Star Wars Galaxies rates an 8.5 out of 10.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mario Kart DS

Mario Kart DS is probably the biggest game to come to the Nintendo DS so far. I’ve read a lot of reviews and the majority of them are in the 9 – 10 out of 10 range. I’ll have to confess right now that this is the first Mario Kart I have played so I can’t really compare it to the ones that have come before. Since Ben and I have both played this game a lot, I’m going to include comments in this review from the perspective of an adult and a 10 year old.

Mario Kart DS is also one of the first DS games to use the Nintendo WiFi connection to allow play across the Internet so I’m giving this game two ratings – one for the gameplay and one for the Internet experience.

The Game

What I like about the game:

  1. It’s fun. – The controls are simple to use and learn. The game is very entertaining and the different characters have their own personalities.

  2. Good Graphics. – The graphics are some of the best I’ve seen on the DS. The frame rates are very smooth which lends to an immersive experience.

  3. Good Sound. – The music fits with the game and is not so overly repetitious that it becomes annoying.

  4. Variety of Games – There is grand pix racing (32 different tracks), time trials, and battle modes with many different arenas. There is a lot of value packed into this cartridge.

  5. Multiplayer – There is built-in support for both single card and multi-card play.

What Ben likes:

  1. Gameplay – If you like racing games where you can explode your opponents, this game is for you.

  2. Variety – Along with the racing there is the battle modes with balloon battles and shine runner battles.

  3. Multiplayer – It’s great to be able to set up the multiplayer games quickly. Since not everyone on my bus has Mario Kart they can still use their DS to play single card download races and battles.

  4. Lots of rewards – There are many characters that you can unlock. You start with eight racers to choose from (each with two carts). You can unlock another four racers and up to 30 carts.

What I don’t like:

  1. Sometimes Annoying – The biggest annoyance is when you are just about to win a race and you get hit by a missile (there is a blue one that only targets the cart in first place). When you get hit by one of these over 50% of the time when you are in first place on the last lap, You really get the feeling the game itself is out to get you.

What Ben doesn’t like:

  1. Blue Koopa Shells –  These weapons are probably the most annoying of all the power-ups (unless you are just behind the cart that gets hit and take first place). These are especially annoying on the tracks such as rainbow road where you can get knocked off the tack and by the time your cart is reset you could be in last place.

  2. No long missions/races – All of the individual events are designed to be completed in less than 5 minutes. If you are the type of person who wants a longer experience that game can get extremely repetitive.

Nintendo WiFi

The much-hyped WiFi component is my biggest disappointment when it comes to this game. Nintendo bills it as a free service where you can compete against your friends or racers from anywhere on the planet.

You know, that sounds really good in practice. However, my experience with the WiFi has been less than stellar. With over 1 million of these cartridges sold, you would think that finding people to race would be easy. Instead it is an exercise in patience and futility.

Other than Ben, I don’t know anyone else with a DS so programming in friend codes so that I can race against my buddies is pretty much out of the question. So, I have to go into the other modes and stare at the screen for 5 minutes while it tries to find someone to race. You see, you just can’t go into an online game room and choose a race to participate in – the WiFi system matches people up.

You sit and stare at the screen while the three available opponent slots say “searching” until one glows yellow which says you have an opponent. However, it does not show you who the opponent is, just that it found someone. Oh yeah, 90% of the time the person will go away before the game is locked in since after 2-3 minutes of being teased that they have a race, the system still hadn’t locked us in and started the race – you can’t force a start so you are at the mercy of the Nintendo WiFi service.

I have only had 4 races on WiFi. Three times I only had one opponent and one time I had two, but one dropped out after he/she lost the first race (you do four races in a set).

As you can see, I’m not really a fan of the WiFi service as it was implemented for Mario Kart.

The ratings are:

Mario Kart DS (Mike) – 9 out of 10
Mario Kart DS (Ben) – 8.5 out of 10
Nintendo WiFi Connection for Mario Kart DS – 1 out of 10

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Need for Speed: Most Wanted

I’ve played racing games off and on for years since the 1980s on the Atari 2600 and the Apple ][. However I didn’t get hooked until one Christmas when Karen bought me Need for Speed – Porsche Unleashed for the PC. I’ve been hooked on NFS games ever since and no other racing games could even compare until I discovered Burnout for the Xbox this year.

Last month the latest version of this great franchise came out – Need for Speed: Most Wanted. For the first time, I also bought an NFS game that wasn’t for my PC – I bought the Xbox version. It was with great anticipation that I started it up.

I was not disappointed.

EA has such great production standards for it’s racing franchises that even though NFS and Burnout come from different developers, they share a lot of the same great qualities:

  1. Kick-butt graphics

  2. Ultra smooth frame rates

  3. A real feeling and sense of speed

NFS:MW follows a story line of you trying to work your way up through the street racing leagues in a metropolitan area that includes urban, rural, suburban and industrial areas. The races are varied and extremely absorbing and – most of all – lots of FUN!

But racing is only part of the challenge. Borrowing from the NFS: Hot Pursuit titles, you also have to dodge the cops in ever increasingly difficult pursuits. Not only do you have to get into pursuits and escape them without getting busted, but you also have to achieve certain milestones to continue. These include:

  1. Escaping in under a certain time

  2. Escaping after a certain time

  3. Running up a defined damage total

  4. Getting charged a certain number of infractions

The longer a pursuit lasts, the higher your “heat” rating will be. As this rating goes up, the cops use more sophisticated methods to stop you such as roadblocks, spike strips, SUVs, and helicopters.

The game allows you customize your car like the previous two NFS: Underground titles did. However the drift and short track race types from Underground 2 are no longer there. Instead of requiring customization to get status points like NFS:U games, you will want to continually customize the look of your cars because it reduces their “heat” rating (since the cops won’t recognize them).

I loved this game and it met all my expectations of a Need for Speed title.

I’ll give it 9.5 out of 10

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Xbox 360 - My Thoughts

The first of the “next-gen” gaming systems are upon us with the much-hyped release of the Xbox 360. As with most new console launches, Microsoft started selling the console without having enough product to feed the demand. This will, of course, disappear over the next few months because they don’t want people to have to wait too long and then move to another platform.

Yes, as an Xbox gamer, the 360 is very cool. With enhanced performance and a killer graphics engine, the games that have come out already really look great. It’s leaving a lot of Xbox (and other) gamers wondering if they should go out and shell out the big bucks for this new gaming system (if they can find one).

I’m one of those people on the fence. It’s a really cool new toy and there are certain emotional geek-needs that could be satisfied with having the top gaming console on the planet. For $200 ($170US) it would not even be a question to ponder – I’d be playing it right now.

However at $500 ($425US) without even a single bundled game, the rational side of me has a chance to take over and beat down the emotionally-needy geek. Yes, that is the “deluxe” package; however you really do not want an Xbox 360 without a hard drive and some of the other features which come in that bundle. The basic version is for people who can’t get the deluxe and will end up buying the hard drive anyway.

So, what is great about the Xbox 360 that has me thinking hard about buying one:

  1. Performance – This is the best gaming platform on the market right now. The games that are out look fantastic.

  2. HDTV – The current-gen Xbox has HDTV capability. The Xbox 360 is designed for HDTV and the higher resolutions. All games designed specifically for the 360 will probably support true widescreen high resolution HDTV.

  3. Xbox Compatibility – There is an ever-growing list of Xbox games that Microsoft has certified as being compatible with the 360. This makes it very compelling for the person who already has a good selection of their favourite Xbox games and wants to continue playing them. In order to do this, you have to have access to Xbox live (either through your computer with a CD burner or direct to the Xbox 360) to download an emulation program to the hard disk (thus the need for the “deluxe” package).

Now, why haven’t I gone out and purchased the Xbox 360:

  1. Price – I know that this time next year, the price will come down and there will be the ever-present “holiday” bundles just in time for Christmas. (Depending on sales, maybe even “back to school” bundles). The Xbox 360 games are also $10 more at regular price than Xbox games.

  2. Competition – Next year, Sony will release the PS3 and Nintendo will release the Revolution. Why jump now when in 6 months or so, I can make an educated decision and choose the next-gen platform that I think is best? The PS3 has awesome performance (event if the controller looks like a boomerang) and is building on the most successful platform ever. The Revolution has a very unique (or “revolutionary”) controller and there is word that the entire Nintendo back-library for Game cube will be accessible online. Microsoft has only sold about half of the Xbox 360 units they allocated to Japan because people are waiting for the other two platforms to come out (that, and the Xbox failed miserably in Japan because it was seen as shoddy workmanship).

  3. EB Games and Blockbuster – HUH? Why did I mention theses? Because both of these companies (at least in Canada) will buy your old games from you and they also sell used games. So, if I move away from Xbox, I can always trade in my Xbox games (and even the console) for store credit and purchase new or used games which will run on my next console.

So, even though it is very hard for me, I think I will hold off getting a next-gen console until I have some choice in the matter. None of the launch titles for Xbox 360 are “must-haves” for me and the Xbox will still see new games for at least another 12-18 months because of the large installed base out there.

My bottom line recommendation is to wait and make a decision comparing three shipping consoles unless there is a game only available on the 360 that you absolutely must have. If you want to prepare for a next-gen console, get a high-definition compatible TV and a 5.1 (or 6.1 or 7.1) home theatre system which you can enjoy right now (and if you have a current Xbox play current-gen games in HD).

P.S. I know I have been lax in posting game reviews, but I have been too busy playing. With new games just around the corner (Christmas!!!), I will try and post reviews for the following over the next week:
Need For Speed – Most Wanted (Xbox)
Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney (DS)
Tiger Woods (DS)
Wallace & Gromit – Curse of the Wererabbit (Xbox)
Psychonauts – (Xbox)
Crimson Skies – High Road to Revenge (Xbox)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Trace Memory

Submitted by Karen

The Nintendo DS game Trace Memory was just recently released in North America, but has been available in the UK and Australia as a game called Another Code – Two Memories since early summer.

Trace Memory is an adventure game, a genre that is somewhat neglected by the gaming industry, partly because the talent involved in creating a good storyline with challenging puzzles is quite different from other game genres, and partly because the market is dominated by gamers who prefer a more visceral and less cerebral style of gameplay.

Enter Nintendo DS, with its emphasis on innovation. An engaging storyline that draws you in from the beginning is one of the most satisfying aspects of this game.


Just before her fourteenth birthday, a girl named Ashley Robbins receives a small machine called a DAS as a gift from her father, who she thought was dead. Ashley’s father had been a scientist, along with Ashley’s mother Sayoko, when he disappeared eleven years ago. After being mysteriously contacted by her father, Ashley goes to Blood Edward Island with her Aunt Jessica, who has raised Ashley since she was three. Jessica appears to know more about Ashley’s parents than she lets on.

When they reach the island, Jessica and Ashley become separated, and Ashley is convinced that she will find Jessica and her father together on the island somewhere. While searching for her relatives, Ashley meets a ghost who appears to have no memory. From that point on, the game revolves around Ashley’s search for her father and the ghost’s attempt to recover his memories.


The dual nature of the quest is one of the least satisfying aspects of the game. Without consulting a detailed walk-through, it would be very difficult to achieve 100% success your first time through. Half the storyline proceeds without difficulty to the end, even if you miss things here and there; the other half of the storyline is so closely dependent on event triggers that it is easy to reach the end of the game without achieving the solution to the quest.

Navigation in the game is mostly intuitive. Sometimes maps change orientation from one area to the next, which is confusing for those of us who are directionally challenged, but most people would not have difficulty finding their way around. Areas requiring investigation are clearly marked, even if they are not always in the same state for each visit.

In fact, gameplay is very linear. When collecting inventory, you can sometimes see an item that the game will prevent you from picking up until you see why you need it. Other troublesome aspects of inventory pertain to an item you carry with you hoping to find its owner, only to have it disappear automatically when you meet that person, without ever showing the transfer. Or an item that is an important event trigger, which is meant to be given to a specific person. If you offer the item to a different person too early in the game, the item is accepted and disappears. From that point forward, without warning, you have destroyed any chance of completing the game with 100% success.

In general, the puzzles are just challenging enough. They are not overly difficult, and except for the inventory issues already mentioned, do not involve irksome repetition or running around. Innovative use of the dual screen and microphone of the DS, as well as a unique method of blending images, make for a novel gaming experience not seen on any platform previously.


The engaging storyline and innovative gameplay make this adventure game a valuable addition to the DS game library. It is held back only by an unnecessarily linear design that relies on easy-to-miss event triggers to complete one half of the game’s dual quest.

Trace Memory gets an 8.5 out of 10.

Burnout 3: Takedown, and Burnout: Revenge

You just got home. It was a busy day and you were stuck in traffic for longer that you care to think about. To top it all off, you have this case of barely suppressed road rage which is eating away at your soul. Well, I have a game for you. Actually two games. The people at Electronic Arts and Criterion software have given us Burnout 3: Takedown and, more recently, Burnout: Revenge. Both offer the best road rage relief possible on a game platform.

I’ve played both these games now on my Xbox (they are also available on PS/2) and I love them both for many of the same (and different) reasons. The racing is more arcade style (like Need For Speed) than true simulation (like Forza Motorsport). Each also has many of the same types of races which include:

  1. Races – This is a fairly simple concept – beat the other racers.

  2. Eliminator Race – The car in last place gets eliminated after each lap (Burnout 3) or after each 30 second interval (Burnout: Revenge)

  3. Road Rage – Take down as many of your opponents’ cars as possible in the time available

  4. Crash – Not really a race. Try to incur the most damage with your car in a given scenario and time

  5. Burning Lap – (Also called Preview) These “races” are basically you against the clock.

  6. Traffic Takedown – How much traffic can you destroy before time runs out (Burnout: Revenge only)

Both games provide great locales and tracks to race on. All of the tracks are street and highway tracks (no traffic-free racing here) and take place in North America, Europe and Asia. The Asian tracks are especially hard to get used to since they drive on the left hand side of the road. Burnout 3’s tracks are linear – there is only one path, but Burnout: Revenge adds shortcuts and jumps (which give you points for air time and enable the new and very satisfying “vertical takedown”. There is a wide variety of cars in both with both games differentiating between race cars (light and fast) and crash cars (much heavier and somewhat slower). There are no licensed cars in either game but I would imagine that there are not too many auto makers that would like to see their top-end vehicles being used for taking down opponents in whatever way possible.

Moving up levels and unlocking more vehicles and races in the games is a mixture of driving skill and risk. The higher the risks you take, the more you will be rewarded. If you win a race driving aggressively and causing your opponents to crash (i.e., taking them down) you will get many more points and rewards than if you had run a clean, crash-free race. And don’t forget, your AI opponents are coming after you. Take someone down and they come after you. If someone takes you down, they are flagged as a revenge target.

Since they are racing games from EA Games, you can always be sure of a great soundtrack with a lot of licensed songs. Between the two, I would have to give a nod to Burnout 3 when it comes to the music. It’s loud and infectious and fits right into the whole game. I find that the music in Burnout Revenge does not really stand out like its predecessor.

My only real beef with both of these games is that Criterion only developed them for consoles and did not offer them on the PC. I’ve played most of the Need For Speed series on my PC and have enjoyed them immensely as well (Underground 2 is coming this fall!!!).

Both game offer multiplayer (2 players split screen and via Xbox Live) where you can compete in all different types of races against up to 6 opponents.

If there is another Burnout game on the horizon, I’d love to see it combine the soundtrack style, navigation and reward mechanism of Burnout 3, and the racing, takedowns, tracks, and trophies of Burnout: Revenge.

For now, I’m going to vent a bit more road rage.

Burnout 3: Takedown gets a 9 out of 10
Burnout: Revenge gets a 9 out of 10

Friday, October 07, 2005

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell - Chaos Theory (Nintendo DS)

This is my first of two reviews for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory. I’ve been playing the game on both the Nintendo DS and the Xbox. This time around I’m reviewing the DS version. I want to start off by saying that I am new to the Splinter Cell world and have not played either of the two preceding games.

I got this game because I was looking for a game on the DS that was aimed at an older audience and had a story line that would take a good amount of time to play through. Online this game got a lot of mediocre reviews, but I noticed that a lot of the reviewers were comparing it to the console version which is not fair. After seeing some good reviews I decided to give it a chance – I’m glad I did.

The game follows the same story line as the console and PC versions, but the levels have been redesigned for the DS. The levels are mostly linear, but each level has many places where you can choose how you will approach the situation and solve the problems in different ways. The weapons are a bit different and some of them have different capabilities. I found the game play very engaging and I was glued to the game for hours at a time. The overall story is excellent and I often found myself turning the DS trying to look around corners.

The game presentation is very much like the console version with 3D graphics in 3rd person perspective. The graphics are decent for the size of the screens but all of the levels are quite dark (but that is the nature of a stealth-oriented game). I did however find that different viewing modes (thermal and night vision) did slow down the frame rate considerably. Luckily you don’t really have to use the night vision much and the areas you require the thermal vision don’t require a fast frame rate.

I found the controls well laid out. The D-pad is used to move your character around. The other buttons all perform various functions in the game, and the touch screen is used considerably – it is used for camera control, weapon selection and menu navigation. You do have to switch between the buttons and the touch pad often, but I quickly got used to holding my stylus between my index and middle finger while using the buttons and moving between the buttons and touch pad quite seamlessly.

There is a two-player multiplayer mode, but I don’t know anyone else with the game (it is a two card multiplayer) so I can’t really review that aspect.

Overall, I was very happy with this version of Chaos Theory. In fact, I liked it so much I went out and bought the Xbox version to see what big brother was like. I’ll review that as soon as I get through it.

Chaos Theory for Nintendo DS gets an 8 out of 10.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Jade Empire

One of my favourite games in the past couple of years was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. With its easy to use interface and rich, open-ended story line it was a game that captured my attention and held me in place for several nights.

The developer of KOTOR - Bioware - passed when it came to the inevitable sequel. They had something new in mind that would be their own property. From this came Jade Empire.

Jade Empire is set in Ancient China. Like KOTOR, you control your main character and travel from place to place. You have a main quest that is driving you through the game but there are also many side quests along the way. As you progress you will gain experience and also find gems that will enhance your attributes and find new followers who will join you on your quest. You can also choose to follwo the way of the open palm (light side) or the way of the closed fist (dark side). Different options are open to you based on which way you follow.

The biggest change from KOTOR is the combat. Instead of turn-based combat, the Jade Empire combat engine is real time without numbers floating above heads every time you strike. This combat engine is fluid and is mapped very well to the Xbox controller. You can fight using many different styles that you learn along the way. These can be:

  • Martial - Hand to hand combat
  • Weapon - There are many different weapons, from swords to staffs, to axes
  • Magical - Magical styles allow you to harness the elements and bend them to your will
  • Transformational - Along the way you will face monsters and demons. If you defeat them you might learn how to become one in battle
  • Support - These styles do not necessarily inflict damage but allow you to replenish your vitals

Your companions add their strengths to yours and can come in very handy in a tough fight.

The story is very engaging and well-conceived. I found myself caring about these characters and always wanting to know where the story was going.

There are two things in Jade Empire that I would have liked to see.

  1. I would have preferred a less linear story. Each place you visit has many different story lines and tasks, but there are many spots in the game where you are warned by one of the characters to finish up your business before proceeding. I would have liked a more open story like KOTOR, where quests sometimes resulted in having to revisit locations 3 or 4 times.
  2. Why did it have to be only on the Xbox? I understand that the PS2 and the Gamecube would not have the horsepower or the space to run Jade Empire, but what about a PC version?

It will be interesting to see what Bioware follows up with. Will it be a follow-up to Jade Empire, KOTOR 3 (please?) or something different. Regardless, this is a developer to watch.

Jade Empire gets a 9.5 out of 10.